By Mary Luz Mejia

The first time I sampled pastel de tres leches (or three-milk cake) was at a private home in Miami, where I savoured a piece of this delectable spongy cake soaked – and oozing – with sweet, milky syrup.

Theories abound as to where tres leches originated. Some claim the cake comes from Mexico, while others argue that it was perfected in Nicaragua and later adopted by Cuba. Another theory posits that, to entice Latin American housewives to use evaporated milk, the Nestle Corporation crafted the recipe and printed in on the labels of cans it distributed in Central America. Whatever theory you’re partial to, the important thing is that you try this wonderful cake. There are many variations – some use coconut milk, mine uses rum, while others are topped with melted chocolate or cajeta (the most amazing spreadable caramel, Mexico’s answer to dulce de leche).

This recipe, which I’ve adapted from numerous versions I’ve tried over the years, has become a household staple, and for good reason.

Try it and taste for yourselves!

Makes 10 servings

5 large eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup whole (3.25%) milk
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Milk syrup
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whipping (35%) cream
1 tbsp dark Cuban rum
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

freshly whipped cream or good quality vanilla ice cream
cocoa powder
sliced mango (or the fruit of your choice; tropical fruits pair nicely with this cake)

Make the cake: Generously butter a 13- x 9-inch baking dish; set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and ¾ cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Add the liquid ingredients to the flour mixture. Using a rubber spatula, mix until just combined.

In the bowl of an electric mixer (or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then add the cream of tartar. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar and continue beating until the egg whites are glossy and firm but not dry. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter. Spread the batter evenly into the baking dish.

Bake in a preheated 350º F oven until the cake feels firm when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Let the cake cool completely in the baking dish. Pierce the cake all over with a fork, taking care to not tear it.

Make the milk syrup: In a large bowl, whisk together the evaporated milk, condensed milk, cream, rum and vanilla. Pour half of the syrup evenly over the cake, waiting until the syrup is absorbed before spooning more on top. Continue to add syrup to the cake until all of the syrup has been absorbed. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, cut a slice of cake and plate it. Top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream or a side of ice cream, dust lightly with fresh cocoa powder, and place a slice or two of fresh mango on the side. This cake is addictive; you’ve been warned! Enjoy.